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Three questions the Cleveland Cavaliers must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer this season to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last season: 51-31, won the Eastern Conference out of the second seed, lost to Warriors in NBA Finals.

I know what you did last summer: It was a busy summer of roster changes, something you don’t usually see from a team that has been to three straight Finals. Kyrie Irving didn’t want to be the guy left behind if LeBron James bolts the team next summer, so he pushed for a trade. New GM Koby Altman struck a deal that sent Irving to Boston for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and the Brooklyn first-round pick in the upcoming draft. In the past week, the Cavaliers signed Dwyane Wade as a free agent (after his buyout from Chicago). Gone from the Cavaliers are Deron Williams and James Jones, but the team added depth with the trade and the additions of free agents Derrick Rose, Jeff Green, and Jose Calderon.

THREE QUESTIONS THE CAVALIERS MUST ANSWER

1) When does Isaiah Thomas get back on the court? And how well can he move? The trade with Boston was a perfect combination for Cleveland of keeping an eye on the future (the Brooklyn pick) and still winning now in LeBron’s prime by getting All-NBA point guard Isaiah Thomas — if Thomas is healthy. Which he is not right now. The hip injury that ended his playoff run early still has him sidelined.

When will he return? On media day the Cavaliers were honest and said January. About halfway through the NBA season. Which creates a challenge for those first 40 games or so (see the next question) but is not insurmountable because the Cavaliers have one LeBron James.

The bigger question: How good will Isaiah Thomas be when he does return? I fear we saw peak Thomas last season, when he was an All-NBA player and fifth in MVP voting. How well with Thomas move when he returns, how explosive will he be? Can he be anything like the spark plug point guard we have come to know? His game is based on that athleticism and crafty moves, if those are limited so is he. It matters to Cleveland as they try to integrate him into the offense for the playoffs — if they get 90 percent of that Thomas it is a big boost for the Cavs, but if it’s 70 percent things get tougher. How he bounces back also matters to Thomas, who is a free agent after this season and needs to show he is healthy to get paid anywhere near what he wants.

2) Cleveland has a lot of talent, but does it fit together? On paper, the Cavaliers are deeper this season — Isaiah Thomas and Derrick Rose at the point, J.R. Smith, Dwyane Wade, and Kyle Korver at the two, Jeff Green behind LeBron on the wing, Jae Crowder adding to Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson up front. There’s a reason I — and many others — are still picking the Cavaliers to come out of the East.

But when you start to put rotations together, things get harder, because all the talent doesn’t fit together well, especially for the first half of the season when Thomas is out. For example, can the Cavaliers really play Rose and Wade together with LeBron? Neither Rose nor Wade are good off the ball, they need the rock in their hands to create to do damage, but neither of them is near the creator or floor general LeBron is. Do the Cavs take the ball out of LeBron’s hands in this scenario? Remember, this is not the Wade from LeBron’s first couple seasons in Miami, this is a guy on the decline who can still create but is limited in other ways. Plus, both Rose and Wade (and Thomas when he returns) are limited defensively.

I like what Tyronn Lue is doing to start games: Rose, J.R. Smith, LeBron, Jae Crowder, and Kevin Love. That is a switchable and passable defensive lineup that will have great floor spacing on offense. Rose can create a little, but most of that should still fall to LeBron. It gets better when Thomas is back and Rose can go to the second unit with Wade — those two can do the shot creating and scoring with that group against other benches, and Tristan Thompson can handle the defense and dirty work with that unit. (Credit Thompson for taking his move to the second unit, which most would see as a demotion, as an opportunity.)

Cleveland has the talent to beat 28 other teams in a seven-game series, but the questions of fit come back to haunt them against their biggest foe. If the Cavs are still playing in June.

3) Does the “is LeBron staying?” saga weigh on the team? Probably not. Or at least not much. This is a team of veterans who know how to shut out the noise from the outside.

However, every move this team and LeBron make all season will be viewed through the prism of “what does this say about LeBron’s future?” And if for whatever reason this team gets off to a relatively slow start and things start to go sideways, that pressure will ramp up. If that losing starts to creep into the locker room — J.R. Smith and Crowder get into it again, Thompson gets frustrated with his bench role, or a million other things — then it becomes a problem. I wouldn’t say it’s likely, but it’s possible. This could be LeBron’s final season in Cleveland, and that certainly can become an issue.

Raptors rookie Terence Davis arrives to game with hole in mask

Raptors rookie Terence Davis
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The NBA – with threat of fine and suspension – reminded everyone inside the bubble to wear their masks.

Why issue that warning now?

Maybe because of Raptors rookie Terence Davis.

Davis arrived to Toronto’s win over the Lakers on Saturday with a hole in his mask.

Perhaps, it was inadvertent. Accidental rips happen. But it’s hard to give Davis the benefit of the doubt after his social-media activity:

Undrafted, Davis has a lot of confidence in himself. He earned that in basketball. If the cut were deliberate, he ought to give more credence to actual coronavirus experts.

Masks are highly important for the general population. We often don’t know whether we have coronavirus. Testing is insufficient, especially of asymptomatic cases. So, everyone in the outside world should wear a mask to reduce the spread.

On the other hand, NBA players – like Davis – can reasonably know they don’t have coronavirus. The NBA’s program of daily testing and no close contact with anyone outside the bubble is designed to ensure a coronavirus-free bubble. That’s why five-on-five basketball games – an otherwise dangerous activity – can be played safely.

However, masks between games are an extra layer of protection. What if a player – intentionally or not – comes into too close of contact with someone outside the bubble who has coronavirus? Masks would limit the spread of coronavirus within the bubble.

All coronavirus precautions should be measured through a cost-benefit lens. Wearing an intact mask can be unpleasant, and it’s somewhat superfluous for NBA players inside the bubble. But the health of everyone inside the bubble plus all the money at stake makes it an easy call.

Wear the mask, and wear it correctly.

NBA’s bubble works so far, allows “great stage” for dramatic games

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — So far, so good.

The NBA’s bubble remains intact. The extraordinary health protocols put into place to try and save this season seem to be working. The mission shared by coaches and players to use their platform and continue the conversation about racial injustice is off to a strong start.

Through four days, here’s just some of what has happened at Walt Disney World: LeBron James had a game-winner for the Los Angeles Lakers, T.J. Warren put his name all over the Indiana record book with a 53-point outburst, Houston and Dallas combined for more than 300 points in a game, the defending champion Toronto Raptors came out flying and Joel Embiid had a 41-point, 21-rebound night — in a loss.

And don’t forget the symmetry: Rudy Gobert was the first player to test positive for coronavirus, so naturally, it made sense that the Utah center was the first player to score when the pandemic shutdown was officially over.

If that wasn’t enough, the quality of play is so good that it’s almost like the NBA hadn’t stopped playing for 4-1/2 months. Shooting percentages and scoring averages, through the first four days anyway, are basically right where they were when the season was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic on March 11. And there has been a ton of down-to-the-wire drama, with eight of the 19 games played through Sunday decided by five points or less.

“In all honestly, it’s better than I was expecting … talking about all the teams in general,” San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said. “Everybody is much crisper. They look more in rhythm than I ever expected teams would be. Whether it’s the best team with the highest seed or other people like us who are just trying to get into the playoffs, everybody’s a lot sharper than I would have expected.”

If the season ended Sunday night, Popovich and the Spurs — whose playoff chances were in serious trouble when the season was stopped — would be in a play-in series for a chance at the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference. And in the Eastern Conference, there would be a first-round rematch from a year ago with the Raptors taking on the Orlando Magic; they’re both on five-game winning streaks, and the Magic are on the best scoring roll in the history of their franchise.

For as much as has been made about the difficulties of being in a bubble and away from families, friends and freedom of movement, turns out, there might be some advantages to this thing.

“Seriously, it’s a great stage to play,” Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said. “There’s not a lot of distractions. It’s the same court every night, so you get your shooting depth perception and all of that. It’s pure basketball. So, you see some of the talents these guys have are coming out.”

The numbers inside the bubble are ridiculous.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, the reigning MVP and probable winner of the award again this year, had 36 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists for Milwaukee in the Bucks’ first real game in the bubble. How did he follow that up? Try 36 points again, 18 rebounds and eight assists in the Bucks’ loss to Houston on Sunday night.

Portland’s Damian Lillard had 30 points and 16 assists in a loss to Boston on Sunday. Kyle Lowry had 33 points and 14 rebounds in Toronto’s win over the Lakers. Dallas’ Luka Doncic is averaging a triple-double in his two bubble games. The Rockets beat the Mavs 153-149 in overtime Friday and then tried 61 3-pointers to tie an NBA regulation-game record Sunday.

On top of all that, there’s the messaging — “Black Lives Matter” on the court, “Black Lives Matter” on the shirts that most players and coaches have worn as teams kneel together for the national anthems pregame, the way coaches like Popovich turn ordinary pregame questions into opportunities to educate about racism. He was asked Sunday if Marco Belinelli was playing; Popovich spent the next 3 minutes and 21 seconds to speak about how Black people in North Carolina were required to pass a literacy test to vote but white people were not.

And then he answered the question: “Marco Belinelli is out tonight,” Popovich said.

So far, so good.

On every level, pretty much, other than the news that arrived early Monday about Jonathan Isaac and how the Orlando forward tore the ACL in his left knee — an injury that would likely put all of next season, if it happens, into question for a big part of the Magic future.

The rust, whatever there was for most players, seems gone. Playoffs are just two weeks away, and momentum already seems to be building.

“I think it’s only going to get better,” D’Antoni said. “I think the playoffs are going to be terrific. And it’s a great setting.”

Three Things to Know: Haven’t we learned by now not to bet against the Spurs?

San Antonio playoffs
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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack — especially with games spread out every day in the bubble — so every weekday during the NBA restart we are here to help you break it all down. Here are three things you need to know from yesterday in the NBA.

1) As Pelicans and Trail Blazers stumble, shorthanded Spurs win again to become nine seed in West.

You’d think we’d all have learned by now not to bet against the San Antonio Spurs?

The Spurs have made the playoffs for 22 straight seasons, a legendary run that was coming to an end this year (with Tim Duncan coaching from the bench rather than draining wing bank shots). The Spurs entered the bubble shorthanded and undersized. San Antonio was four games back of eighth-seed Memphis and having to leap both New Orleans and Portland, plus the Spurs were without LaMarcus Aldridge, their best big man.

Count them out at your own risk.

After beating Memphis Sunday behind 21 and 10 from Dejounte Murray, the Spurs are currently the ninth seed in the West — if the season ended today, San Antonio is in the playoffs and would face Memphis in a play-in series.

The Spurs have gone to a four-guard starting lineup — Murray, Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV, DeMar DeRozan, with Jakob Poeltl as the big — and that lineup is messing with teams. On defense, they switch everything 1-4 and bank on Poeltl to protect the rim. On offense they run and play at pace — they have moved away from leading scorer DeRozan for a more balanced, egalitarian offense.

“We need to play with pace. We don’t have one-on-one players,” coach Gregg Popovich said after a recent win. “We don’t give the ball to a player and say, ‘beat your guy and go score.’ That’s not the kind of players we have on the team. We’ve got to do it as a group. We’ve got to have movement and pace goes along with that.”

The bench behind that starting five — Patty Mills, Rudy Gay, and Drew Eubanks — follows the same premise.

It works — and it’s fun to watch.

The teams that were the favorites to earn the ninth seed are stumbling. New Orleans is 0-2 and has been a mess — Zion Williamson is playing 15 minutes a night, they struggle to defend the paint, and in the bubble their offense has been atrocious. Portland’s offense has been impressive with Jusuf Nurkic — even if Damian Lillard is passing up game-tying threes — but their defense has been as bad as the offense is good, and the result is a 1-1 record with a tough schedule ahead. (The Kings are 0-2 and shorthanded, and while the Suns are 2-0 they were so far back to start they were never in this race.)

Like every year, here come the Spurs, putting a makeshift lineup out there and looking like a team that has a shot at making the postseason. Again.

You’d think we’d all have learned by now not to bet against the Spurs…

2) Orlando’s Jonathan Isaac tears ACL

This sucks.

Jonathan Isaac had been having a breakout season — and looking like an All-Defensive Team player — until a left knee bone bruise sidelined him in January. The break in play caused by the coronavirus let him return for the restart, and now this?

Driving to the basket Sunday — late in a blowout game where he was still in to help build up his conditioning — Isaac tried to plant on that left knee and it buckled under him. It was a non-contact injury that looked bad when it happened. He was taken off the court in a wheelchair.

Later the word came from the Magic, Isaac had a torn left ACL. He’s obviously done for this restart and likely will miss all of next season as well.

Isaac had made more news in Orlando for his decision to stand for the national anthem, explaining his decision was based on religious grounds. On the court, he was seen as a cornerstone of what Orlando wants to build.

This is a punch to the gut for Orlando.

3) Giannis Antetokounmpo looks like MVP with 36 points, but Rockets’ former MVPs take the win

This game was the ultimate clash of styles: The big and long Milwaukee Bucks who dare teams to take above-the-break threes, against the small-ball Houston Rockets.

This game was a reminder why Houston is going to be so much trouble in a playoff series — teams have yet figured out how to play against them. For the first couple of games of a playoff series the Rockets could surprise teams, and that may be enough.

Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 36 points, had 18 rebounds and eight assists on the night, but it wasn’t enough. The Rockets took 61 threes (hitting 21, 34.4%), Russell Westbrook scored 31, and Houston got the win 120-116.

Milwaukee led by six in the final minutes and by one with 16.5 seconds left, but in the clutch all night Westbrook was able to drive and draw fouls. James Harden had 24 points, but it was Westbrook’s play at the end that was the difference. Well, that and some defense by Harden and P.J. Tucker that led to Danuel House stealing an Antetokounmpo and sealing the win with free throws.

The Rockets are rested and fresh, and the small-ball game is still finding teams not exactly sure how to deal with them. Will that work in a seven-game series remains to be seen, but this is such a fun experiment to watch.

Orlando’s Jonathan Isaac suffers torn ACL in left knee

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Jonathan Isaac, who returned from a left knee injury to play for Orlando in the bubble, has torn his left ACL and is out for the remainder of this season. And likely the next one.

It was a non-contact injury that occurred when Isaac drove into the paint Sunday, tried to plant on his left leg, and felt his knee buckle under him.

Isaac had been in the news in Orlando for his decision to stand for the national anthem, explaining his decision was based on religious grounds.

It’s a blow to the Magic, who believe Isaac is one of the cornerstones of their future. He was having a breakout season until he suffered a posterior lateral corner injury and a bone bruise back in January. Now comes this. Teammate Aaron Gordon said he was in tears when the injury happened.

All those injuries came in a season Isaac was making a leap on the court. On offense, he’s averaged 12 points and 6.9 rebounds a game, both career bests. However, his bigger impact is on the defensive end, where he is a long, athletic, switchable defender averaging 2.4 blocks and 1.6 steals a game. He might have made the All-Defensive team if healthy.

Now, it will be a couple of years before we get to see Isaac on the court again.